(Image via Annapurna Pictures)
One of the many brilliant aspects of Kathryn Bigelow‘s new film Detroit, recounting the true story of the 1967 Detroit riots, is the feeling of tension, dread, and fear into the project. Bigelow has been a master filmmaker when it comes to tension and suspense with the films she’s made in the past decade (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), but Detroit amps it up to a whole new level. Her latest collaboration with screenwriter/producer Mark Boal might be their finest collaboration yet, a film that captures all too well the story of those riots, and the unfortunate but all-too-real present in that this story continues to be relevant, almost now more than ever before. Detroit is one of the very best films of 2017, and one that I can’t recommend enough.
Detroit revolves around the days long riot that erupted in the city in response by the African-American community for a police raid and years and years of systematic racism. But the film mainly revolves around the build-up, the event itself, and the aftermath of the Algiers Motel incident, in which three African-American men were killed and the assault/beating of seven black men and two white women. The film is told through the perspective of a trio of cops (Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole), a security guard who gets mixed into all of this (Jon Boyega), and the perspective of the victims at the Algiers Motel incident.
Barry Ackroyd, a frequent collaborator of Bigelow’s (and Paul Greengrass) is behind the camera as the film’s cinematographer, with his work being one of the major standouts of this picture. Shooting in his signature cinéma vérité style, you feel as if you’re with these characters during this incredibly tense and terrifying couple of days in Detroit, and Bigelow’s attention to detail to everything in the film from the style to the framing is brilliant. This isn’t an original comparison to this film (it’s been mentioned in a couple of reviews so far), but Detroit plays almost like a horror movie at times. The sequence inside the Algiers Motel, which takes up a good chunk of the film’s running time (maybe 30-40 minutes if not longer), is so nerve-wracking and stressful as an audience member that it rivals any traditional horror film you’ll see either this year or just in general. And what might be the most horrifying part of all this is that this shit actually happened, and the image of cops killing unarmed black men continues to be a narrative in America 50 years later.
Speaking of the police, I want to talk about the performance by Will Poulter. He plays a racist cop who was instrumental in the Algiers incident, and he’s incredible in the film. I absolutely hated this character, and Poulter does such a fantastic job of portraying this racist, bigoted, and hateful man with such vigor and ease that he almost disappears into the role in a way. If the film gets the kind of awards season attention that it should, I hope Poulter’s performance gets some attention as well. It’s one of the very best performances I’ve seen all year.
The entire cast in this film is fantastic. While Jon Boyega isn’t in the film that much (even though he gets top billing), he’s great in the film. Anthony Mackie has limited screen-time, but he’s also great in the film. But the standouts in the film were probably the performances by Algee Smith as a member of the Dramatics and Jacob Latimore as his friend who both get caught up in the Algiers Motel that evening, with emphasis on Smith’s performance. Smith has the kind of swagger and confidence that made his character the lead singer of the Dramatics at one point, but is able to convey the fear and dread that comes with this evening that ends up throwing his whole world upside down and then some. It’s a really phenomenal performance, and all these great performances are a testament to Bigelow as a director, in that she can recreate a world like 1967 Detroit so vividly, but makes sure that the characters and the performances come first ahead of the visual aesthetic.
It should also be mentioned of how unsettling this film is with our current times, in how we continue to hear stories of cops beating up and killing young black men all over the country. This isn’t a new thing, but thanks to social media, we’re able to follow these stories a little bit better, and figure out what really happened in many of these cases (it’s worth noting that nobody really knows what exactly happened at the Algiers Motel incident, so there’s a disclaimer at the end of the film notifying the audience that Bigelow/Boal did their best to recreate what might’ve happened there). And especially with the President of the United States, who last time I checked is supposed to represent ALL OF US, spoke in front of an assembly of policemen telling them to be a little rougher with the people they arrest, it shows you why films like Detroit need to be made and seen, and the importance of our deeply troubled history in America, and how films recounting these troubled events can help lead to change somehow, and help us learn from those mistakes that we as a country have made in the past.
Detroit is not only the most important film you’ll probably see in all of 2017, it’s also one of the very best films you’re going to see all year as well. I was just as impressed with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty like everyone else was, but Detroit is the best film that Bigelow and Boal have made. It’s important to see a film like Detroit not only because it’s a great film, but because it’s the kind of film that will hopefully get a dialogue going between audience members on police brutality, and the kind of change that needs to be done to make sure their isn’t another Algiers Motel, another Ferguson, etc. Our politics have gotten so tribal and poisonous that maybe a dialogue like that this might just be wishful thinking on the part of myself, but I’ve been wrong before.